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Implications for Regional Collaboration

Appropriate policies, governance structures, and technologies have been the key building blocks of growth and poverty alleviation in East Asia.[11] These have promoted economic efficiency as the foundation for sustained growth, while enhancing broadly based participation to growth through continued improvement in the access of the poor to basic social services. Elsewhere in Asia where growth and poverty outcomes are less encouraging, policies have hindered efficient resource allocation and engendered wasteful activities, governance structures have been weak (in the sense that policies and measures chosen do not promote either growth or equity, or both), and technologies have been inappropriate for meeting food security and sustainability goals. While external factors have contributed to these outcomes, success (or failure) has been influenced largely by policy choices and political actions within countries.

Nonetheless, as indicated in the above discussions, there are scopes for regional collaboration, as well as roles for multilateral institutions such as FAO to play, toward deepening poverty alleviation in Asia. In principle, the need for regional collaboration arises if one country’s actions have benefits (costs) that may spill over to other countries. Put differently, the potential for collaboration exists if the total gains from collaboration are greater than the sum of the gains of individual countries acting independently. The collaboration gains may include important lessons that can be learned by late starters from development experiences of early starters (e.g., technology borrowing). In practice, political constraints, including distrust, and high transaction costs-opportunity costs of resources used in information acquisition, organization, and contract enforcement-may prevent the formation of a regional collective action and, hence, the realisation of gains from collaboration. Multilateral institutions can help reduce participation cost for individual countries through information exchange and policy dialogue, as well as provide basic public goods beneficial to all countries (e.g., upstream research in biotechnology).

Regional programmes provide opportunities for a transfer of experience between countries in tackling the poverty and food security issues discussed above. Moreover, institutions such as FAO may have a comparative advantage in developing basic methodologies and guidelines at the regional level, which may be later on fine tuned to meet specific circumstances and requirements of individual countries at the national level. It is argued that this process is far less costly (in terms of time and money) than one that requires starting separate programmes in each country to achieve the same end product.

In this regard, among the promising areas for regional collaboration in the context of poverty alleviation and food security include: (i) mechanism designs related to poverty intervention schemes, especially social safety nets during periods of financial crisis and macroeconomic adjustment; (ii) governance structure for poverty alleviation, especially decentralization and privatization of basic services for agriculture and rural development; and (iii) international trade negotiations; (iv) institution of early warning systems related to natural calamities, especially in countries with geographical proximity; (v) conservation and proper utilization of natural resources, especially water; and (vi) agricultural R&D, especially upstream research. For each one, the specific form of collaboration could include information exchange, expert consultation, regional action-learning programmes, and exchange visits.

Mechanism designs relating to poverty intervention schemes

All countries in this region have implemented a variety of rural development and poverty alleviation programmes. They have made several innovations in their programmes on asset distribution, employment generation, social security and public distribution. Many of these innovations have succeeded while quite a few have failed. Other countries can learn valuable lessons from these successes and failures. Experience in targeting the programmes, in involving people in identification and management, and in making the projects and the schemes financially viable, are of relevance to the countries with similar objectives.

Such exchange of experiences should not be restricted to government-sponsored schemes and activities. Many NGOs and people’s organizations have done exemplary work with the poor and food insecure, of which the Aga Khan Foundation in Pakistan, SEWA in India, and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh are the better known. All such organizations have valuable lessons to teach in the most difficult areas of poverty alleviation i.e. in evolving people friendly, economically viable and sustainable delivery systems. Periodic meetings and, wherever feasible, exchange of personnel will be of mutual help.

Governance structure for poverty alleviation

It is clear from the Asian experience reviewed above that the main reason for the slow progress in poverty reduction for many of the developing Asian countries is usually the slow pace of policy and institutional reforms aimed at improving efficiency in the use of productive resources and building a long-term foundation for a broadly based growth, i.e. governance. Yet, not until lately, the issue of governance has received little attention in international fora. In light of the lingering Asian crisis, the need to intensify efforts aimed at enhancing the quality of governance in the developing countries of the region is more urgent now than ever before. Multilateral institutions such as FAO can hasten the process by, among other things, extending technical assistance and resources to local institutions supporting fiscal discipline, developing clearly defined rights to use or own property, enforcing efficiency-enhancing rules, and maintaining social and political stability. The assistance may also include the development of analytical capacity among technocrats and specific groups. The ability to influence policymaking depends critically on the availability of basic information on economic situation and on the probable outcomes of policy options.

In recent years, partly in recognition of the need to reform the fiscal sector and effect structural adjustment, many countries in the region have privatised state-owned enterprises and decentralised the provision of basic services, including those for agriculture (e.g., R&D generation and information dissemination), from the central government to local government units (LGUs). Experiences with these initiatives, especially those directly bearing on agriculture and rural development, have not been well documented. Nor are the conditions for the success of privatisation and decentralisation in spurring agricultural development, food security, and poverty alleviation well articulated. It is well known, for example, that the problem of market failures (e.g., absence of - or highly imperfect - markets, provision of public goods, spillover effects) is more severe in agriculture than in the rest of the economy, owing partly to the relatively poor state - or lack - of infrastructure in rural areas. How, in practice, has decentralization of agricultural services in the countries of the region, worked and addressed this problem? How have LGUs and non-governmental organizations responded to decentralization vis-à-vis the level and quality of basic services provided to poor farmers and landless workers? What lessons can be learned from the experience so far? Clearly, a comparative assessment of country experiences in the region is helpful in advancing "best practice" processes vis-à-vis provision of basic services for the agriculture sector.

Collective action in international trade

Momentous changes which have serious implications for the food security in the developing countries are taking place on the international plane. Most important among these are the Uruguay Round (UR) agreements, the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the world-wide move towards regional economic blocs. The UR agreements have, for the first time, brought agricultural trade under international discipline. Developed countries have made firm commitments to bring down the level of subsidies and give larger access to their markets. Also, some provisions have been made to help developing countries, especially the poor food-importing countries, during the transitional period, gradually adjusting their trade regimes to the changed economic environment.

In the changed economic environment, WTO has acquired great importance. The developing countries have to be vigilant so that the concessions allowed them under the UR Agreements are not nullified for one reason or other. They also have to watch that the developed countries do not take away the gains of tariff liberalisation by imposing non-tariff barriers, or by bringing in extraneous matters such as environmental concerns or child labour, in trade negotiations. Only with collective bargaining can the developing countries of this region obtain fair conditions. WTO is one forum in which the developing Asian countries have to take a united stand. There are other international organizations where these countries have to collectively watch out for their interest.

Early warning systems

Large parts of the Asian region are subject to floods and droughts, sometimes both. Volcanic eruptions, fire and frost are common occurrences in South Asia. There is a view that deforestation and extension of cultivation on marginal lands have increased the incidence of natural disasters. Many of the countries of the region have perfected the art of coping with natural disasters to a great extent, but each country has to fend for itself, even when a calamity is spread over more than one country. The region will benefit from an early warning system that will forewarn the countries about the impending calamity. With modern advances in techniques and instruments of surveillance, this would be a manageable undertaking.

Conservation and proper utilisation of natural resources

In resource-poor developing Asian countries, priority should be given to the efficient and sustainable use of natural resources. One of the most important areas for collaborative action from this perspective is the integrated use of the water of international rivers. In South Asia, as well as in Indochina, basins of major rivers straddle across national borders. Upper as well as lower riparian states can make best use of these waters in irrigation, hydro-power generation, navigation, fishery development, and for drinking purposes if they can agree on comprehensive planning of water resources in their common rivers. The Indo-Pak treaty on the Sindh river system, mediated through the World Bank, provides an excellent example. Serious attempts are afoot to arrive at such understanding on the use of international rivers between India, Nepal and Bangladesh. An encouraging beginning has been made in the case of the waters of the river Ganga at Farraka. A few other similar projects on international rivers are in the offing. It will need political sagacity and farsightedness on the part of all concerned to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions.

Even if a comprehensive understanding on all aspects of river waters cannot be arrived at, a beginning can be made by exchanging information on vital aspects of rainfall, river flows, evapo-transpiration, ground water regimes etc. High level commissions on integrated water use have been or are being established in a number of developing Asian countries. There could be mutual consultation and exchange of information among these bodies right from the start.

Collaborative activities in agricultural R&D

The National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) in some of the Asian countries are fairly well developed and have reached international standards. India’s agricultural research system is considered one of the best in the developing countries. Pakistan has made significant advances in the use of water in agriculture while Sri Lanka has a fairly well developed system for plantation crops.

Other countries have also specialised in some crops or resource use. All Asian countries can benefit from information exchange and collaboration in organising relevant research activities. In South Asia, as well as in Indochina, such collaboration has great potential because of the large, contiguous, agro-ecological tracks. Much of Indochina, two Punjab in India and Pakistan, West Bengal State of India and Bangladesh, Tarai region of Nepal and the eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India, share more or less similar agro-ecological features. Research findings applicable to one part could be of use to other parts.

In South Asia, cropping patterns are dominated by rice and wheat for which generic research would be useful for large areas in different countries. It should be recalled that the Green Revolution came to this part of the world on the strength of adapting the results of the generic research conducted in different parts of the world, for wheat in Mexico and rice in Philippines.

Some developing Asian countries - India in South Asia and Thailand and Malaysia in Southeast Asia, in particular - have made significant advances in frontier research in biotechnology, tissue culture, plant genetics etc. Other countries in the region should be enabled to take advantage of these advances in crop and animal sciences, rather than reinvent the wheel.

Meaningful regional cooperation can be forged around the fulfilment of a basic and pervasive need such as assuring food security to the poor people of the region. South Asia lags in this respect. International agencies can help these countries in collaborating in some of the areas identified in this report and succeed in ensuring food security to the poor people of Asia.

[11] While the financial crisis has slowed down poverty alleviation and put to question the quality of institutions governing development in this sub-region, it is a fact that past achievements in this sub-region can not be simply erased.

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